Irish Independent - Health & Living - - FRONT PAGE - WITH PA­TRI­CIA CASEY

Iac­cept that I am in a se­ri­ous and grave minority. But I have no in­ter­est in the World Cup, I couldn’t care less that Ire­land is not play­ing and I don’t give a toss who wins or loses. I haven’t watched more than one minute of play and this hap­pened in­ad­ver­tently when I went into the TV room to of­fer my fam­ily tea dur­ing one of the matches. It was promptly de­clined in favour of some­thing more heady. Yep! Beer.

Yet it’s strange to ob­serve the whole coun­try sud­denly im­mersed in this thing, called foot­ball. Even those who pre­vi­ously had no in­ter­est are now to be found talk­ing about tac­tics, play­ers and referees. The de­tails of ev­ery score, the misses and the ma­noeu­vres are poured over and dis­cussed, as if life it­self de­pended on the out­come. Even friends of mine who or­di­nar­ily have lit­tle in­ter­est in the game are set­ting alerts on their mo­biles to en­sure they don’t miss the next match.

More than any­thing else, foot­ball at this level proves the power of group iden­tity. Sud­denly, ev­ery­body is part of the in-group, the to-be-with crowd.

We all iden­tify with var­i­ous groups as need arises. Tribal iden­tity has been in­grained in us for aeons.

When we are abroad, we strongly iden­tify as Ir­ish, when we talk about books, we feel most affin­ity with those who read broadly the same genre as we do. When we have small chil­dren, our group iden­tity is with younger par­ents, and so on.

These iden­ti­ties are gen­er­ally more ephemeral than our more per­sonal ones such as our gen­der, our place of birth and race, our faith or our fam­ily of ori­gin. These as­pects of our per­son­hood can have a pro­found in­flu­ence on our world view.

Yet iden­ti­fy­ing as a foot­ball fan, even if only for a day, is of value too, and should not be dis­missed. It can bring hap­pi­ness and fun to our lives, it can help if we are lonely and in­tro­duce us to a lit­tle lev­ity away from life’s strug­gles. It can con­fer a sense of be­long­ing, even if it is ten­u­ous.

Walk­ing in one of the leafy sub­urbs of Lon­don last week dur­ing the heat wave, I no­ticed that win­dows were open in most of the houses. In­side I could see groups sit­ting tensely around ul­tra-widescreen TVs, swig­ging beer and ob­vi­ously en­grossed in the match. Eng­land was play­ing Colom­bia.

Then with­out warn­ing I was hit by whoop­ing and hol­ler­ing com­ing from all di­rec­tions. Eng­land had scored and were on the cusp of win­ning the match.

Such sim­ple joy among the fans was de­light­ful to wit­ness, even for some­body as in­dif­fer­ent to the game as I was. Those peo­ple were bonded be­cause of their com­mon com­mit­ment to their team. They felt pride in who they were and in their coun­try’s team. They were win­ners and the mo­ment al­lowed the ex­pres­sion of pride and emo­tion in an ac­cept­able way. Even peo­ple who are or­di­nar­ily re­strained en­gage in the ya­hoo­ing when they are blended in with a group.

They be­come dein­di­vid­u­ated and meld into the group, par­tic­u­larly if the mem­bers are dressed sim­i­larly, say in the same colour jer­seys, and act sim­i­larly. They then be­have in ac­cor­dance with the norms of the group. The im­por­tance of so­cial iden­tity was first high­lighted by Henri Ta­jfel in the 1970s. He was Pol­ish by birth and worked at Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity. He also high­lighted the role of so­cial iden­tity on

Foot­ball at this level proves the power of group iden­tity — sud­denly, ev­ery­body is part of the in-group


Thus one might ex­pect that a process that makes a virtue of na­tional iden­ti­fi­ca­tion might cre­ate a sense of “them and us” and lead to foot­ball hooli­gan­ism against op­pos­ing teams.

This was a huge prob­lem for British fans in the 1970s and 80s, but thank­fully what­ever other forces were at work then seem to have dis­ap­peared, and fans on ev­ery side seem good-hu­moured and not in the least jin­go­is­tic.

The 1970s were a time of huge cul­tural change in Bri­tain with mines clos­ing and man­ual labour be­ing re­placed by ma­chines. There was great un­cer­tainty among the work­ing classes. This would ap­pear to have passed, or per­haps a new norm has been es­tab­lished. There have been no hooli­gan re­ports dur­ing World Cup 2018.

I’m un­likely to be sign­ing up for the next World cup or the one af­ter that, but thank­fully World Cup 2018 seems to be happy and en­rich­ing.

Let’s hope Ta­jfel was wrong and that so­cial iden­tity, based on coun­try of ori­gin or eth­nic­ity, is no longer the toxic breed that it was in the re­cent past.

Let this Sun­day — when the World Cup 2018 fi­nal will be held in Rus­sia — be a night of gen­uine cel­e­bra­tion for all teams and their fans.

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